Boston blew a 3-1 series lead to get to Game 7, but came back to win the final game in OT. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
BOSTON – If you’re looking for a turning point in the wildest game of this year’s playoffs, you might be surprised to learn that it came seven minutes into the third period with the Boston Bruins down 4-2 and Milan Lucic headed to the penalty box. Because it was then that Lucic decided, once and for all, that he was going to be a difference maker.
“I just said, ‘Screw it, you’ve just got to leave it all out there,’ ” Lucic said. “That’s all it took, especially when you’re down. You do whatever you can to give yourself a chance.”
History will show that the Bruins pulled off a comeback for the ages in their 5-4 overtime win in Game 7 of their first round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs. History will show Patrice Bergeron was the hero, scoring the tying goal with 51 seconds left in regulation and the winner at 6:05 of overtime. What history will not tell you is that the game and the series turned when Lucic and the Bruins said, “Screw it.” It was at that point that both of them showed themselves to be the champions they are, when they finally decided to take ownership over things and when Lucic turned into an unleashed beast for which the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs had no answer.
To a man, the Bruins acknowledged that they have to be better, much better, if they hope to get by the New York Rangers in the second round and on to the Eastern Conference final. They have to be more assertive, play with more urgency before the final minutes of games and have their stars dictate the pace of the game. And they’re right. And if the way the Bruins played in the latter stages of the game is any indication, they’re going to do it.
To these eyes, there were two key differences in Game 7. The first was that on the Bruins beats the heart of a champion. The second was the glove hand of Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, where goals went to die, compared to the shaky glove hand of Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer, which failed him on Lucic’s goal that made it 4-3 with 1:22 left in the game.
And here’s where things really turned. The Maple Leafs, as you would expect from a young team protecting a three-goal lead, began to sit back and let the play come to them. They effectively abandoned the aggressive, attacking style that had put them in that position in the first place. And the Bruins, who had been sitting back for much of the game, then turned into the hunter and began to dominate, starting with the penalty kill on the Lucic penalty that looked more like a power play for them. Then came Nathan Horton’s goal to make it 4-2 midway through the third period and the Bruins used their new lease on life to grab the momentum by the throat.
“It seemed like we started to play more reckless and taking pucks to the net,” said Lucic, who channeled his inner Cam Neely and must continue to do so in Round 2 against the New York Rangers.
On the flip side, how exactly do you frame this defeat if you’re the Maple Leafs? On the one hand, the Leafs were playing with house money from the start of the playoffs. Nobody expected them to be here and the late meltdown aside, they acquitted themselves very, very well. They displayed a sense of resilience that many observers suspected they never had and found a way to adjust to the pace of the playoffs very quickly.
“They had us on the ropes. We’re not going to sit here and lie, they had us on the ropes,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “I saw a team with a lot of players getting out of their comfort zone and doing what it took. I have no doubt they’ll grow from that.”
But on the other hand, this will sting for a very long time. And the fact the Leafs lost might raise more questions than answers. For example, did Reimer’s body of work through the regular season and the playoffs quell or fuel the prospect of Roberto Luongo coming to Toronto? And can a team win when its heartbeat consists of wildly inconsistent and polarizing performers such as Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel?
The Maple Leafs undoubtedly hit the fast forward button on their rebuild and will learn from this painful lesson. Sometime this summer they’ll be able to look back on their epic series fondly, but there will be many sleepless nights before that happens.
The Bruins, on the other hand, are going to the second round by the hair of their chins, which thankfully for them, will have the opportunity to grow for at least another two weeks. And if the Bruins do get things together and raise the Stanley Cup when all the dust settles, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to look back to Game 7 of the first round as the precise moment in time when things turned their way.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.